Bird banding a long-haul effort
Migratory birds were the focus of bird-banding training last month in the Chilkat Valley, sponsored by the Ts’ats’ee Bird Observatory.
“We got preliminary training for 10 folks, nine of whom will be locals and will come back and work at our bird observatory,” said Pam Randles, education coordinator for the Takshanuk Watershed Council, parent group to the bird observatory.
The observatory is hoping to schedule another, advanced training in August.
Randles said trainees met for about 10 hours a day for a week, beginning at 6:30 a.m. under the instruction of Danielle Kaschube of the California-based Institute for Bird Populations, and completed homework.
“It was fascinating just to realize how much detail had been collected on birds, each individual species,” said resident Eric Kocher. “There was easily three to four hours of class time a day, and it was a combination of hands-on and the classroom stuff.”
The group banded “whatever came by” and got caught in mist nets, Randles said. Species among the approximately 55 birds that were banded included chickadees, juncos, robins, ruby-crowned kinglets, sparrows and a sharp-shinned hawk, she said.
“What we look for is species, age and sex, which sounds really easy, but it’s not,” Randles said. “Unless they are actually nesting, the sex is not obvious, so for age and sex, it’s like a mystery. You put together a whole bunch of clues, from plumage, shape, wing-length and from all kinds of measurements that you take off of the birds, and those clues give you an idea of how old the bird is and whether the bird is male or female, and you can’t always tell.”
Kocher noted “banding the bird is the easy part,” and “if you don’t know the answer to the age or the sex or something, you don’t guess at it.”
Banding helps measure long-term trends in the region, Randles said, such as changes in habitat.
“When you can get age structures and breeding status, you can get an idea of whether this bird is here accidentally or whether it comes here on a regular basis to breed,” she said. “Now, we can’t tell that from one week; we can tell that from 10 years. Over time, we will see general biodiversity changes - if there are any - we will see breeding habitat changes, we will see if the young birds are coming back or not.”
Another goal is to determine whether the Chilkat River and Pass serve as a “bird flyway,” or common flight path, for migratory birds, Randles said.
Information also is gathered through recapture of the birds at other locations, but the odds of that happening are “real iffy,” she said. “We probably get more information from the data that we take, than the bands.”
Each aluminum band on a bird’s right leg has a number to be reported to the Bird Banding Lab in Maryland, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. The lab then looks up the number and contacts the station where the bird was banded.
“We hope, in the future, to be able to put big (steel), color bands on some eagles that you would only need binoculars to identify, but you have to have a pretty big bird to be able to identify through binoculars,” Randles said.
She said ruby-crowned kinglets were quite common during the training.
“For many of the trainees, the first bird they band is this tiny, little, fragile guy, and they get very, very nervous about poking around, because nobody wants to hurt the birds,” she said.
Randles said she would seek additional training to earn a bird-banding permit. She plans for the observatory to study two cycles a year: spring migration, daily, for about six weeks; and a Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivability (MAPS) study that assesses birds breeding here throughout the summer, with data collected approximately once every 10 days.